Western Illinois has won four of its last five games against Youngstown State.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- The Youngstown State football team won't waste any time discovering where it stands in the Gateway Conference.
For that, the Penguins can thank Western Illinois tonight.
The Leathernecks, defending conference champion, visit Stambaugh Stadium at 7 having won four of their last five games against Youngstown State.
"It is a true test against a talented team," Youngstown State coach Jon Heacock said. "The challenge is there. This is an awesome opportunity."
The Penguins' only win in the last five games against Western Illinois came in 1999, when the defense stuffed the Leathernecks at the goal line to preserve a 28-24 victory at Stambaugh Stadium.
"I just remember waiting for the call, to see if it was a touchdown or not," said Youngstown State senior quarterback Jeff Ryan, recalling his view from the sideline. "I remember Tim Johnson and the whole defense running off the field excited and me being on the sideline holding hands with the guys.
"That's what it's going to take this week -- togetherness."
Togetherness, especially from the Penguins' defense.
Balanced attack: Talk this week centered around the effectiveness of the Western Illinois offense, which was balanced in its 17-13 victory over first-year Gateway member Western Kentucky on Aug. 30. The Leathernecks gained 161 yards passing, 141 rushing.
"We have a lot of big-play potential on offense. We have good experience on offense," Western Illinois coach Don Patterson said.
Senior Sam Clemons quarterbacks the Leathernecks, who didn't pass much against Western Kentucky because of wet conditions. He completed 5-of-9 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown.
"They [still] like those big plays -- run the ball, run the ball and all of a sudden they try to hit you deep," Youngstown State senior linebacker Bob Sivik said. "Everyone's going to have to play consistent."
The Leathernecks, who lost standout running back Charles Tharpe to graduation, were led last week in rushing by Carlos Daniels, a 6-foot, 2-inch, 245-pound senior who had 103 yards on 23 carries.
"Carlos Daniels came in and did a nice job," said Patterson, whose team is ranked sixth in the Sports Network I-AA poll, three spots behind Youngstown State. "Certainly, he's going to be relied on heavily for the Youngstown game."
Heacock is concerned about Clemons and his targets, including senior receiver Frisman Jackson and senior tight end J.R. Niklos, and an experienced offensive line.
McWilliams stars: Defensively, Western Illinois had the player of the week in the Gateway and I-AA following the Western Kentucky game. Junior linebacker Jason McWilliams made 17 tackles, including 15 solo, and two tackles-for-loss.
"Our question marks will be on defense," conceded Patterson, referring to his team's youth.
Another factor Western Illinois is facing -- having not played a game in 23 days after its game against the Hilltoppers.
"They've been off for three weeks," Heacock said. "I'm sure they're healthy, and they've had a lot of time to prepare."
Youngstown State last played on Sept. 8 in a 44-0 victory over Clarion. The Penguins also defeated Lock Haven 38-7 on Aug. 30.
"The team that's going to win is the one that's focused," Ryan said of tonight's game. "Being able to mentally prepare all week and bouncing back from [being off] last week -- that's going to be the key."